Academic journal article Capital & Class

Abstract Labour: Against Its Nature and on Its Time

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Abstract Labour: Against Its Nature and on Its Time

Article excerpt


Numerous critical studies on abstract labour have appeared in recent years. Apart from three articles in Capital & Class by de Angelis (1995), Arthur (2001), and Kicillof and Starosta (2007a), notable contributions have come from Heinrich (1999), Kay (1999), Kicillof and Starosta (2007b), Murray (2000), Postone (1996) and Starosta (2008). In place of transhistorical conceptions of abstract labour as the physiological expenditure of human energy, or as homogeneous labour that is generally adaptable to the changing demands of capitalist production, the emerging consensus in the contemporary debate conceives of abstract labour as a socially determined, specifically capitalist form of labour that 'depends on exchange' (Bellofiore, 2009: 183). This insight was fundamental to earlier debates on value and abstract labour in Capital & Class (see Himmelweit and Mohun, 1978; Eldret and Hanlon, 1981; de Vroey, 1982).

Their conceptualisation of abstract labour as a specific capitalist form of labour goes back to Isaak Rubin's work on value, which was rediscovered in the early 1970s. Rubin had argued,

one of two things is possible: if abstract labour is an expenditure of human energy in physiological form, then value has a reified-material character. Or value is a social phenomenon, and then abstract labour must also be understood as a social phenomenon connected with a determined social form of production. It is not possible to reconcile a physiological concept of abstract labour with the historical character of the value which it creates. (Rubin, 1972:135)

For Eldret and Hanlon (1981: 40), the 'determination of abstract labour as a physiological expenditure of labour-power leads to the crudest understanding of value and the loss of the socially specific character of value-creating labour. The abstractness of value-creating labour is determined by the exchange process, which accomplishes the abstraction from the multifarious concrete labours objectified in commodities.' Similarly, De Vroey (1982: 44) rejected physiological conceptions of abstract labour as being a 'naturalistic deformation of the social reality of capitalism'. If it is physiologically understood, abstract labour defines Man's productive relationship to natural objects in general, as a generic presupposition of historically specific forms of social relations. For these CSE authors, this notion misconceived of Marx's theory of value as a refined and improved version of Ricardo's labour theory of value, which also suggested that Marx's account evolved logically from classical political economy, especially Ricardo. (1) Yet Ricardo's labour theory of value did not distinguish between concrete labour and abstract labour, and it treated labour as an undifferentiated category that belonged to production. His account thus 'lacked historical specificity: historically specific categories are rendered universal and hence natural. It follows that any analysis which uncritically employs these categories will always tend to ascribe asocial, natural, even eternal qualities to what is socially specific to capitalism' (Himmelweit and Mohun, 1978: 80). In contrast, the CSE authors argued that the examination of value as a specific social form of wealth entailed the understanding of abstract labour as a specific capitalist form of labour.

In this context, Axel Kicillof's and Guido Starosta's stance is distinct. They argue against social form analyses of abstract labour, and instead offer a vigorous defence of its physiological conception. At the same time, however, they treat value as a specifically capitalist category. They see abstract labour as a transhistorical category that in capitalism is 'represented' by the value form. This article examines Kicillof's and Starosta's intriguing contention. Marx's notion of abstract labour is ambivalent. (2) He defines it in asocial physiological terms, and insists that it is a specifically capitalist form of labour. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.